Biopunk: Combining biotechnology with punk doesn’t sound very appetizing. It’s a punk in a garage messing around with bacteria genetics to produce the world’s first pet-eating amoeba colony. Something like that.
The word isn’t that new. Biopunk is, among other things, already a genre of science fiction that focuses on biotechnology and subversives. It has its roots in the cyberpunk genre, usually a bleak vision of a world gone into decay through technology and virtual computer reality. By extension, biopunk often depicts a world gone into decay through rampant biotechnology excesses and random disasters of bioengineering. Both genres are filled with dark visions of economic collapse, extremes of character, colorful language, and a mostly dysfunctional human race.
Biopunk is also kind of a movement, the uncollected thoughts of scientists, artists, and cultural critics who are trying to raise the public awareness of biotechnology, and in particular the way genetic information is being collected and misused.
So, biopunk may not be exactly new, but I don’t recall the word used very often by the MSM (mainstream media) or even at cocktail parties (not that I frequent either of these sources). Perhaps it is a reverse case of Miranda’s famous line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” to which Prospero replies, “Tis new to thee.”
Biopunk can also be synonymous with biohacker. Biohacker is a derivation of computer hacker, which is a more common phrase, although even more commonly misunderstood. A ‘hacker’ in computer terms has a number of (contested) meanings: Mostly a hacker is an amateur who writes or modifies computer software or hardware. A hacker could be a hobbyist, although I’ve known quite a few hackers who would bristle at the suggestion. People get confused about the intention of a hacker because the name suggests cutting, slashing…ah, hacking, like some kind of bloody endeavor. Also, historically, another definition of hacker was people who deliberately attempted to foil computer security measures – with or without criminal intent. Biopunk is going to inherit some of this confusion.
So we have biohacker = biopunk. A biohacker does for genetic code what the computer hacker does for software: Take it apart, discover its secrets, and construct something different with it. The biopunk could be a sixteen year old kid, who smokes, and does the lab work in a bathroom. The kid could be the next Bill Gates, or worse.
Is this possible?
I know that most people have this image of biologists and biotechnologists as working in big glass-faced buildings with shiny stainless steel laboratories and banks of spotless electronics – the stuff of well-heeled academies, large chemical corporations, and big Pharma. People who work in such places would laugh at this image; they know better. Biology is messy, whether it’s out in the wild or sitting on a lab bench. They also know that at least certain kinds of biology, even genetics; can be done without expensive equipment, without the stainless steel lab, and even without a college diploma.
Do-it-yourself bioengineering already exists. Gene modification is already performed in high-school biology classes. Some high-wattage thinkers, especially Freeman Dyson (physicist) think that we’re in the century of biology and much of that biology will be done by amateurs at home. Dyson’s seminal writing (2006) to that effect is well worth reading: New York Times Review of Books: Freeman Dyson – Our Biotech Future. Here’s a sample:
Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.
If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.
I won’t get into the implications of what Dyson is saying. I’m just laying out some words that need to be in the vocabulary. Biopunk. Biohacker. DIY-bioengineering. Garage biotech. These words, abused as they will be, are simple portals into something very important for the 21st century. Dyson may be right. Biotechnology just might be the force that defines this century. If the 20th century was the century of physics, we should remember that physics nearly destroyed the world. Biotechnology has similar potential.